There is a lot of really good gelato in Rome now. There is also a lot of fake gelato. Oh no! How do you know where to go and what to get?
You're visiting Rome and only have a few days. If you're like me, you might have at least 2 gelato in Rome per day. But actually I find most people only get in 2-3 gelato visits on their trip to Rome. I am a firm believer that life is too short to eat bad or even mediocre gelato.
Find out everything you need to know about gelato in Rome, like:
Gelato is the Italian word for ice cream (the word literally means "frozen.") However, gelato is made differently from ice cream.
Gelato has less air and less fat than ice cream. Gelato is made from milk, while ice cream is made from cream. Gelato is churned very slowly, so there is less air in it than in ice cream, which is churned, even whipped, much more quickly. Ice cream is stored at very cold temperatures, which is why it's usually really hard at first, whereas gelato is stored at slightly warmer temperatures, so it never gets that hard.
To me, denser, milkier gelato seems richer than ice cream, but believe it or not, ounce per ounce, gelato is less fattening than ice cream!
Here I want to talk specifically about artisanal, made from scratch gelato. The best gelato is made fresh daily, from only natural ingredients, and consumed that day (maximum the next.)
There are three major factors that go into making gelato:
The base for gelato is essentially whole milk (or cream) and sugar. Other typical ingredients may include natural stabilizers such as carob flour and guar seed.
On top of the above ingredients, you can incorporate the flavor you want, such as hazelnuts, chocolate, etc.
For fruit gelato, you would substitute the milk for water, so fruit gelato should be made with water, sugar and crushed fruit.
Gelato is slowly churned, allowing for very little extra air (called overrun). In artisanal made-from-scratch gelato, this is about 20-25%.
Gelato is also stored in bins at a not-quite freezing temperature of about 5-10° F/ -12 to - 15° C.
So you can see that for gelato to be real, and therefore really delicious, it should be made with fresh, natural ingredients, made either the same day or max one day before, and very creamy and smooth (due to the churning process and temperature.)
A lot of gelato in Rome is either mass-produced (industrial), or produced elsewhere in advance, and can be stored for long periods of time. Or, even if made on site, can be made from a powdered mix, with coloring and flavors added later. Often, there are non-natural additives and stabilizers in there (to give it an appealing color, or to keep it fluffy.) You might think it actually tastes just fine, or ok anyway.
The additives are (supposedly) not harmful. They are approved food additives. But still.
Does this mean it's fake gelato? Well I call it fake. You could call it industrialized if you want. Regardless, once you've had the real thing, made with all natural ingredients, the fake gelato will not taste nearly anywhere as good.
You will see gelato in Rome on just about every corner. Chances are, if you randomly go in and try some, you will be happy with it. Even fake gelato can be good.
But once you've had the real thing, it's hard to go back!
If you want to know if a place offers serious, artigianale for real, gelato in Rome, check these factors:
If real gelato is made from all-natural, fresh ingredients, with no artificial colors or flavors, why on earth would banana gelato be bright yellow? It wouldn't. When you eat a fresh banana, the color is more like a grey cream. And that is what color your banana gelato should be.
Have you ever broken open a pistachio nut from its shell? Remember what's inside? That pistachio nut is not bright green. It's a dull brown-green. And that is what pistacchio gelato should look like.
The only time you should see very bright colors in real gelato is when the base for that flavor is bright, too. Raspberry? Bright raspberry color, yes. Basil (as in, white chocolate and basil at Gelateria del Teatro), yes a kind of white-green.
Real gelato is made by a slow churning process that allows for very little air inside, and that creates a dense, not-quite freezing product. This is one reason gelato is always ready to eat the minute you get it. Unlike ice-cream, it never fully freezes or hardens, and likewise, you don't need to wait for it to soften.
So if gelato has this consistency, how could it stand up in tall swirling mountains? Maybe with the help of extra air and some other additive?
Also keep in mind that the best gelato is made in small batches, and meant to be consumed that day. I am not sure the gelato in those huge mountains is eaten all in one day, which makes me think it stays there longer than that. How long? Who knows?
Gelato should be made fresh, and then immediately stored in steel bins. You will usually find the best gelato flat or just below the surface of the bin. Because gelato is dense, and does not have a lot of air, and because it's stored at a not quite freezing temperature, it should kind of sink into the bin it's stored in.
In some gelaterie, it's even covered, to keep the air out, and the temperature just right. In any case, you should not need to see the gelato (color) to know what flavor you want.
Check the flavors of the gelato on display. Year-round fruit flavors, like banana, pear or apple, are fine. If there are seasonal fruit flavors, make sure you are in the right season. There should not be fig or peach gelato except in summer.
Also, are there any bizarre un-recognizable flavors with names that make you wonder what's in them? Like Puffo (smurf) gelato, which is a bright blue color?? Fake gelato in Rome.
Are the gelato flavors being hidden or camouflaged with lots of extras like syrup? That is another sign the quality of the ingredients in the gelato itself may not be up to par.
Finally, does the gelateria offer the simple classics, that are difficult to make if you don't have quality ingredients? These include hazelnut, crema, fior di latte (or fior di panna). Hazelnuts are expensive. So is really good milk and cream. And if you make gelato out of one of these ingredients only, you need that ingredient to be very good indeed. These are signs of a gelateria that takes itself seriously.
Not only should the names of the flavors of the gelato be recognizable.
In addition, you should be able to locate and understand the list of ingredients used by the gelataria. By Italian law, these have to be available for anyone to see.
These days, it's pretty common to spot one of these signs at gelaterias in Rome.
Produzione propria means, they make it on the spot...but this does not actually mean they make it from scratch. It can come from a mix or pre made concoction and be mixed on the spot! So take that sign with a grain of salt.
Gelato artigianale is supposed to mean the gelato is produced the old-fashioned way, from scratch, with fresh ingredients: all natural, no preservatives. But there is no controlling this, so just look for the tell-tale signs listed above, and you'll know.
I know it seems odd that I would suggest to you what gelato flavors to try. By all means, go for what you want! Besides some of the classic flavors you already know, be on the lookout for unique and unusual flavors at some of the gelato-pioneers, il Gelato di Claudio Torcè, Otaleg, Fatamorgana and Gelateria del Teatro.
I want to let you know about the more classic flavors of gelato in Rome, and also some of the trends in gelato today.
Gelato does not need to be sweet. You can make gelato out of anything you can eat. Many gourmands make savory gelato as an appetiser or even side dish. And that is what many Rome gelato masters are doing now. And it's not just wild experimentation to create some gimmicky flavors. There are now some really interesting gelato combinations out there, worth trying if you are game.
Fatamorgana and Gelateria del Teatro have a pretty good selection of unusual flavors, but the leaders in this area are Il Gelato di Claudio Torcè and Otaleg. You will typically find a lot of comfortable, familiar flavors at these gelaterie, but you will also find plenty of options if you're game for something new and different.
I tend to love certain flavors, and use them as my barometer for how I will judge a gelateria.
If you go around Rome and do some gelato taste-testing (really, I recommend this activity), then you should note in particular some of these flavors, as it will give you a chance to both test for the purity of the ingredients, as well as compare the same flavor across the gelaterie.
In doing my extensive research on where to find real gelato in Rome, I had to actually study (not only eat all the gelato I could find.) In my reading and research, I have learned that one sign of a high quality gelateria is whether or not they have fior di latte or fior di panna gelato. (You can find fior di latte even in fake gelato shops, just look for the above tell-tale signs.)
Fior di panna is pretty much the base for a creamy gelato: just heavy cream and sugar. That's it. So think of real whipping cream and how it tastes when you make whipped cream at home from scratch, with just a touch of sugar. And then imagine that is gelato. Simply divine.
As much as I love my old stand-by gelato flavors like the nuts (hazelnut, pistachio, almond), and dark chocolate, I am now on a mission to try all the fior di panna gelato in Rome. The winner so far, gelateria i Caruso.
Pistachio gelato is one of my go-to gelato flavors, because it has to really taste nutty and not be too bright green (which would indicate that it’s got unnatural stuff in there.)
In some of my favourite gelaterias such as Fatamorgana, Gelateria del Teatro, or Gelateria dei Gracchi, you may find more than one type of pistachio: these will be from different regions of Italy (Pistacchio di Bronte is considered one of the best, from Sicily) or possibly the middle east, where pistachio nuts originate.
I find pistachio gelato goes well with either chocolate, or a light mild creamy flavor, such as fior di latte or crema, because if you get another nut flavour next to it, it's hard to really savor them both.
Dark chocolate is called fondente, as opposed to just plain chocolate or even milk chocolate, al latte.
And when you can find extra-fondente (like at gelateria Riva Reno), even better!
In some gelato shops in Rome, you will see different chocolate flavors from different parts of the world. I recently had Madagascar chocolate at Fatamorgana - now that's what I'm talking about! And, at Il Gelato di Claudio Torcè, there are almost 20 different chocolate gelato flavors!
It's also common to find chocolate with flecks of something else like such as pepperoncino (hot chili peppers) or orange peel. This adds another interesting dimension, but the true chocoholic in me likes to stick to just fondente. When it's good, it's good and that's that.
These are standard flavors you are likely to find in most gelato in Rome
Typically, gelato is sold by the size of the cup or cone, rather than the number of flavors. I usually get a small-sized cup or cone (should cost around 2 - 2.50€), and that gets me two flavors. Some places might even give you three in that size.
Depending on the size of the gelateria and how many people are working there, you might have to pay first and get your receipt (scontrino), and then take it to the counter to give it to the person serving. If it's a tiny shop and there is only one person, you could pay first or after.
I recommend getting flavors together that complement each other. Like two or more fruit flavors together. And if you get one nut flavor, I would not get another as then it becomes difficult to really appreciate them. Try to get maybe a chocolate or simple cream flavor with a nut flavor instead.
You will almost always be asked if you want panna on top. This is whipped cream.
It should be simply cream that is whipped and almost never has sugar (my niece tried this when she was five and decided she did not like Italian whipped cream!)